Taken for a ride?

View of Benidorm from Gran Hotel Bali. Picture: FDV
For our British friends, “Benidorm” is a prime-time sitcom of the British ITV set in Spain1. For all the others it is a holiday resort at the coast of Costa Blanca, half an hour away from Alicante, Spain. It is known for its Manhattan-like skyline, a symbol for the cementation of Spain’s shoreline, for its building and ground speculation scandals since the late 1950s, and a synonym for cheap underclass holidays.

Prize for Environmental Journalism

I was in Benidorm last summer on the occasion of the award ceremony for the First International Prize for Environmental Journalism about the Mediterranean Sea, worth 18,000 EUR – thus a really big one.

The Prize was announced by Casa Mediterraneo, a cultural organisation for networking with all states around the Mediterranean Sea under the umbrella of the Spanish foreign ministry. However, applications were welcomed from all over the world as long as the works deal with the environment of the Mediterranean. It was endorsed by EUSJA member AECC, the Spanish Association of Scientific Communication, and also by the Spanish Association of Environmental Information Journalists – thus an honourable one. EUSJA and the World Federation of Science Journalists WFSJ circulated the call for applications a year before2.

The first prize went to Felix Tena, editor at the Spanish Canal 9 TVV, for its documentary “El Pais de las palmeras” and to Jacopo Pasotti3 for his excellent story “Mare Nero” in National Geographic with his own pictures documenting the oil pollution and the chase for polluters in the Mediterranean Sea. Jacopo Pasotti, writing in several languages, is member of actually two of EUSJA’s associations, the Swiss Club of Science Journalism and the Italian SWIM.

Off the symbol of cementation

I went out to the island off Benidorm in order to gain the full view of the sky-scraping hotels along the two small people covered beach stripes. The view was negatively impressing, but positively impressing was the island itself, a well preserved nature reserve of high ecological value4.

The environmental journalism prize was scheduled to be awarded every two years, with the the award ceremony taking place in Benidorm. Thus this year (2011) Casa Mediterraneo advertised the second round for the prize during the World Conference of Science Journalists WCSJ in Doha, Qatar. There EUSJA board members met the director of Casa Mediterraneo, Yolanda Parrado, the officer responsible for the prize, Elia Carceller, and the mayor of Benidorm, socialist Agustin Navarro. Of course we asked: “Why Benidorm, a resort with quite a low reputation of sustainability?”

Already in 2008 the BBC published a piece entitled “Benidorm – the new face of eco-tourism”5. And now we heard even more astonishing things: Wastewater recycling, energy efficiency, solar power, environmental education, regional food, great nature reserves.

Curious about eco-tourism

Yes, we became curious as we received information demanding more closer looks, promising good stories.

Thus we asked the people from Casa Mediterraneo and the mayor if they would not be interested to show the efforts of Benidorm to become the most sustainable holiday resort in Spain. They promised to consider our proposal.

“Tourism in Benidorm: sustainability with Mediterranean taste” was the title of an urgent study trip invitation sent to the EUSJA delegates on 19 October, as a result of our talks in Doha. But the trip was already scheduled for 27 to 28 October, thus the deadline for an application had to be the next day. EUSJA had never before announced a study trip with such a short deadline.

But the EUSJA journalists showed enormous flexibility as applications rushed in, but only 12 could be considered. Their names were sent to our Spanish host.

The outrageous happens

As soon as Casa Mediterraneo received the names of the EUSJA journalists, immediately 7 were rejected and uninvited – another unparalleled incident in the 40 years long history of EUSJA.

As a reason the organiser said, that no journalists from southern Europe were on the list, and that it now wants to look for other, even non-science journalists on its own.

The EUSJA Board considered this a serious offence against the European science journalists and the European public. For the Board it was absolutely not acceptable that journalists were disregarded this way, and that a lot of time and effort had been trashed. Thus we complained strongly in a letter to the Director of Casa Mediterraneo.

We even asked the selected participants to boycott the trip, if they can still manage it. Some thought about it, but had already reserved newspaper space or airtime for a story.

However, the endeavour to find other journalists from southern European countries seemed to have failed. So two days before departure, the study trip was completely cancelled by Casa Mediterraneo.

Controversial opinions

A lively e-mail discussion among the delegates sprang up. Some complained about the short announcement, while others wrote, that journalists have to be flexible.

One complained that the Board accepted an invitation from a “tourist board” while having no influence on the programme. However, Casa Mediterraneo is not a “tourist board” as mentioned above and the idea for the trip was born during WCSJ in Doha.

Others demurred also of the PR character of the trip. But every study trip has a certain amount of PR messages, even WCSJ was full of such PR messages, as one replied.

There was even a voice that Benidorm is the “opposite to sustainable tourism and the worst you can imagine to be done in an originally very nice Mediterranean village. Benidorm promoting a prize on environmental journalism … seem to me like an contradiction.” But our own researches and talks gave us different pictures – which could have been verified by seeing the place and talking to residents.

A closer look is necessary

Thus it is a pity that EUSJA now missed a quite interesting, maybe also controversial trip. The discussions after the cancellation showed us that prejudices are still governing our minds and prevent us from looking closer at things. “Science journalism critical questioning in the public sphere” is the motto of the next WCSJ 2013. This is just what could have been done during a study trip to a critically discussed tourist resort. We should indeed be more open while at the same time discriminate between PR, sitcoms and facts.


  1. Benidorm, the sitcom: http://www.comedy.co.uk/guide/tv/benidorm/ ↩

  2. Announcing the Environmental Journalism Prize: http://www.wfsj.org/resources/item.php?id=232 ↩

  3. Jacopo Pasotti: http://www.jacopopasotti.com/about.html ↩

  4. Brebbis, C.A., F.D. Pineda (2010): Sustainable Tourism IV (WIT Transactions on Ecology and the Environment): http://amzn.to/uAzbBW ↩

  5. BBC (2008): „Benidorm – the new face of eco-tourism“: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/7402603.stm ↩